11am ET, live in the US on FSC
Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12
1-2 Chelsea (n; FA Cup) 05.05.12
2-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 11.20.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-1 Newcastle (h); 1-3 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 3-2 Shakhtar (h); 1-1 Swansea (a); 5-4 United aet (h)
Liverpool: Suarez 7; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Chelsea: Mata, Torres 4; Ivanovic, Lampard 3; Cahill, Hazard 2; Cole, Moses, Ramires, Sturridge 1
Referee: Howard Webb
Webb's been in charge of two previous LFC-Chelsea matches: Liverpool wins in October 2008 and November 2010. Somehow, amazingly, he's already given United a penalty in tomorrow's match.
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Suso Suarez Sterling
Johnson's almost assuredly back. Reina has a decent chance of playing as well. Otherwise, same old, same old. The Liverpool line-up guessing game has become a bore.
It'll be a big day for Liverpool's two holding midfielders and the full-backs. Almost all of the danger in Chelsea's side comes from the attacking line of three. Mata, Oscar, and Hazard are all world-class footballers, capable of turning a game by themselves, capable of constantly switching positions to baffle their markers. Mata and Hazard each have five assists, Mata is Chelsea's joint-top scorer in the league, and Oscar is their top scorer, by some distance, in the Champions League.
Gerrard and Allen will need to be diligent with their tracking and intelligent with their positioning to ensure that none of the three find space between the lines, getting into that dangerous "Zone 14," which Noel wrote about following Liverpool's win over Chelsea in February 2011. Much has changed in the last 21 months, but Chelsea's main threat still comes from that area of the pitch. In Liverpool's defense, they've rarely conceded from that position this season – Arsenal's first goal, on the counter-attack, springs to mind, but few others, at least in the league. Still, Allen will need to be ready for a full defensive shift, while Liverpool will need Gerrard to play with the discipline we saw against, say, Manchester City in last season's Carling Cup semi-final.
Where Liverpool do often concede is either on the counter-attack or from the flanks. Sometimes both: Newcastle and Sunderland's goals, as well as Norwich's second, down Liverpool's left; Arsenal's second, Everton's second, and Norwich's first down Liverpool's right, And this is where the full-backs come in. Hazard and Mata are clever enough to stay wide to stretch the play if needed, pulling defenders out of position. Both Johnson and Enrique have been susceptible to individual errors, especially when also tasked with going forward to support the attack, and Liverpool have allowed too many crosses – whether crosses to heads or crosses to feet – from wide positions. Johnson, if he even plays, is coming off an extended injury, likely to display at least a little rust. Enrique is Enrique, capable of both the sublime and senseless within a matter of seconds. And in Ramires and Oscar, Chelsea have the midfielder runners that get into the box which Liverpool have all too often lacked, to say nothing about the potential of Chelsea's misfiring number nine.
Oscar and Ramires (and Mikel, if he's gone forward) will also take turns pressing Allen quickly whenever he's on the ball, looking to disjoint Liverpool's system at the base. Gerrard will have to provide deep support rather than charging forward to support the attack, as will Şahin, while Liverpool's defenders will probably rack up even more passes than we've seen in some of the pass-heavy matches so far. Chelsea will undoubtedly remember how pressing the deepest midfielder is what led to them conceding the first goal at Stamford Bridge last season.
And then there's Liverpool's attack. Read: Luis Suarez. I sincerely hope John Terry still has nightmares of their league meeting last May, turned inside out time and time again, left wholly uncertain which way was up, with the center-back at least partially responsible for Liverpool's first three goals. Left out of Chelsea's last Champions League match, Terry hasn't played in almost three weeks, and hasn't played in the league since October 6. Either of his potential center-back partners – whether Luiz or Cahill – are, like Liverpool, capable of egregious, baffling errors. Both Sterling and Suso, more the former than the latter, have the ability to pin Chelsea's full-backs deep, and neither Hazard nor Mata are likely to track back to give much help. Sterling's speed will be especially valuable given Ivanovic's propensity for a rash tackle, already sent off twice this season.
Both sides will almost certainly play matching 4-2-3-1 formations, with Liverpool's slightly more a 4-3-3 because of Şahin playing deeper than Oscar and Suso and Sterling marginally higher up the pitch than Hazard and Mata, even though Liverpool's wingers are also more likely to necessarily track back to help in defense. Chelsea's XI is almost as easy to guess as Liverpool's; whether Cahill or Luiz partners the returning Terry seems the only question. Otherwise, Cech in goal; Ivanovic at right back; Bertrand at left-back; Mikel and Ramires in midfield; Hazard, Oscar, and Mata as the attacking line of three; and you-know-who up front. Lampard and Cole are Chelsea's only injury issues.
Don't let Roberto DiMatteo lull you into a false sense of security. No matter if Liverpool have won the last four league meetings and five out of the last six matches in all competitions, few Liverpool fans or players would consider Liverpool to be Chelsea's bogey side. Not this Liverpool, not this Chelsea, after what we've seen so far this season.
A "bogey side" also suggests the winning team is tangibly inferior to the losing team, yet finds a way to blindside the latter. Think, say, West Brom, Sunderland, Wigan, Fulham against Liverpool in the last couple of seasons, Birmingham and Bolton against Benitez's sides. Yes, Liverpool somehow seem to have a lot of bogey sides of late. Anyway. Liverpool were the deserved winners in all four of those previous league wins, dominating play in three of the four; only Dalglish's first match against the Blues saw Liverpool cagily nullifying Chelsea with the 3-5-1-1 used, scoring the lone goal on the counter-attack. Chelsea haven't been at the races in any of the four fixtures.
If this Liverpool beats that Chelsea tomorrow, then maybe we can start talking about bogey sides. Because on form, Liverpool will have to play far above their current station – will have to put together a full 90 minutes of the glimpses and flashes of promise that we've seen in other matches – to challenge this Chelsea.